Protecting the Environment: Two lawyers have personal reasons for caring

By Kara Lofton | July 20th, 2015

Olga Kolotushkina

Pictured at the Roanoke River, Olga Kolotushkina ’95 grew up in the Soviet Union, where she says environmental care was lacking. She has been a volunteer in successful efforts to protect the Roanoke River watershed, where she owns a home. (Photo by Kara Lofton)

On a conservative Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania, Lorraine Stoltzfus ’77 grew up watching her father protect his land from soil erosion through contour farming.

Almost 20 years later, when Stoltzfus had finished her time at Eastern Mennonite University and was in law school at the University of Wisconsin, Olga Kolotushkina ’95 was spending her summers in a quite different rural area – in the Soviet Union, where families would sneak into the forest to cut down trees for firewood.

The two women pinpoint these memories as the ones that first whetted their interest in environmental protection.

Lorraine Stoltzfus

Mennonites didn’t go to law school. At least the ones that Lorraine Stoltzfus knew 40 years ago.

But by the mid-1980s, she had moved to Wisconsin and was working as a legal secretary in a law office. After a while “I realized that what I really wanted to be doing was the work that the attorney was doing. It fit with who I am, even though it was out of culture for me,” says Stoltzfus, a 1977 graduate of EMU.

During that time, she was also highly involved in environmental protection work as a layperson. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much more effective I could be from the legal side of things.”

In 1988, Stoltzfus received her JD from the University of Wisconsin Law School, the first person in her home church network to do so. Soon afterward, she was hired by the Wisconsin Department of Justice as one of six lawyers who focus exclusively on environmental protection.

“My formal title is Assistant Attorney General. Essentially I represent the State of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to enforce all the environmental programs the state is responsible for.”

In one recent case, Stoltzfus dealt with a large, multi-state corporation that was violating state and federal air pollution regulations.

“Companies have air pollution permits that give them limits on how much pollution they can emit,” she says.

“In this particular case I worked with a Department of Natural Resources air engineer, met with the company several times, and finally settled with the company. In exchange for lower fines, the company ended up reducing their emissions to lower than the original permit required.”

Stoltzfus has recently handled cases involving hazardous waste violations, wetland protection and land use law.

Environmental law is her passion. It combines the skills at which she excels (reading, writing, analysis and arguing) with a cause she is committed to.

Over her 26-year career at the Wisconsin Department of Justice, several of the cases that Stoltzfus has litigated have ended up in Wisconsin law casebooks.

“I love my job,” says Stoltzfus. “I was raised a fairly conservative Mennonite, but when I asked my mom what she thought about me being a lawyer she said, ‘You are doing work that helps to protect God’s creation.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Olga Kolotushkina

The Roanoke River watershed remains free of radioactive uranium thanks to attorney Olga Kolotushkina ’95 and other activists in the Roanoke River Basin Association.

In 2009, Kolotushkina learned that Virginia Uranium, Inc., planned on developing a large uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County, just upstream from her lakeside home.

Kolotushkina began to do research. The uranium deposit in question was first discovered in the 1970s and is thought to be one of the biggest undeveloped uranium deposits in the country. She found that in the early 1980s, Virginia legislators enacted a state moratorium on uranium mining until further studies could be done.

The moratorium made sense: All current uranium mines in the United States are in more arid, sparsely populated regions. The Pittsylvania County mine would have been the first uranium mine on the East Coast, a region with regular, sometimes heavy, rainfall.

Kolotushkina was alarmed by the risk to her region: If the proposed mine were to flood, radioactive leavings could leak out and contaminate the watershed as far south as the Outer Banks in North Carolina for several years.

“Uranium mining is a very local issue,” Kolotushkina says. “In order for us to win the fight to keep the ban, we had to go up against state agencies and legislators who viewed the proposed mine as ‘pro-business.’

“Basically what we managed to do, with other local organizations throughout Virginia, was to energize people to put pressure on state legislators to not lift the ban.”

In 2012, in response to the controversy, the National Academy of Science published a study that examined “the scientific, technical, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of uranium mining, milling, and processing” for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The report concluded that there are “steep hurdles to be surmounted” before mining could take place in a manner protective of the ecosystem and humans.

This report supported the position of Kolotushkina and her allies and was instrumental in the withdrawal of the proposed bill by its sponsors.

In 2013, in the absence of support, the main sponsor of the lift-the-ban bill, Senator Watkins from Richmond, withdrew his proposal and the ban against uranium mining was maintained.

“There were a lot of personal reasons why I was drawn into this issue,” Kolotushkina says. “I’ve always felt passionate about the environment.

“But when I was growing up in the Soviet Union, protecting the environment was never a big issue – people would sneak into the forest to cut a tree for their fire and that bothered me.”

Kolotushkina earned her law degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1998. When she is not doing pro-bono work on behalf of the Roanoke River Basin Association – in the area where she keeps a second home – she lives in the District of Columbia, where she is an attorney at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.